7. Years of pilgrimage, 1835–9.
In order to escape the scandal Liszt and Marie eloped to Switzerland. Liszt was troubled by the possible consequences to his own life in leaving Paris with a mistress who was already a wife and a mother, and he sought counsel from Abbé de Lamennais, who advised against it and travelled to Croissy in a fruitless attempt to dissuade Marie from abandoning her family. The couple went first to Basle and thence to Geneva where they rented a house at 1 rue Tabazan. There was already an active artistic and intellectual élite in the city, and Liszt soon found himself in the middle of a circle which included the politician James Fazy, the botanist Pyrame de Candolle and the economist Simonde de Sismondi. Liszt’s arrival in the city coincided with the opening of the newly founded Geneva Conservatoire and Liszt accepted an invitation from its founding president François Bartholini to head its piano faculty. He was assisted by two of his students, Pierre-Etienne Wolff and his colourful young pupil Hermann (‘Puzzi’) Cohen who had pursued him from Paris in order to continue his lessons with Liszt. During Liszt’s brief tenure at the Geneva Conservatoire he was invited to write a piano method. Despite many rumours to the contrary, he never produced such a work. The only pedagogical works he ever completed were the volumes of Technische Studien (1868–73) published after his death, with which the non-existent method is sometimes confused.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1835 Liszt and Marie d’Agoult made various incursions into the Swiss countryside; they visited Lake Wallenstadt, William Tell’s Chapel and (in the company of George Sand) the Chamonix Valley. Liszt’s impressions of the sights and sounds of Switzerland – its pastures, storms and mountain springs – were captured in the pieces of his Album d’un voyageur, later reworked as the ‘Swiss’ volume of the Années de pèlerinage. Such compositions as Chapelle de Guillaume Tell and Vallée d’Obermann betray their time and place, and are in a sense autobiographical.
On 18 December 1835, Marie d’Agoult gave birth to Blandine-Rachel at Geneva. Liszt openly claimed paternity on the birth certificate, where he is described as ‘a professor of music … who freely acknowledged that he is the father of the child’; the identity of Marie d’Agoult was camouflaged as Catherine-Adélaïde Méran, ‘a lady of property … born in Paris’. Such a deception had less to do with protecting the identity of Countess d’Agoult than with protecting her husband the Count from future liability. Under French law, any child born to Marie would have been regarded as the offspring of her husband. ‘Liszt and I had but one thought: to avoid this monstrosity’ (Vier, H1955–63, i, 393–4). (Two other children were born of the union and Liszt again claimed paternity: Cosima (24 December 1837) and Daniel (9 May 1839). All three children achieved distinction. Blandine married Emile Ollivier, a prominent lawyer who became Prime Minister of France under the government of Napoleon III; Cosima became the wife, first of Hans von Bülow and then of Richard Wagner, directing the Bayreuth festivals after Wagner’s death; Daniel died when he was only 20, but he had already won the national prize of France for classical studies in Latin and Greek while still in his adolescence.)
In the spring of 1837 Liszt’s curiosity had been aroused by reports from Paris of the sensational piano playing of Sigismond Thalberg; he returned to the city in order to defend his crown. The famous ‘ivory duel’ between the two pianists took place in the home of the exiled Italian Princess Cristina Belgiojoso on 31 March 1837. Arranged as a charity concert for expatriate Italians, the affair attracted wide publicity. Thalberg played his fantasy on Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto and Liszt followed with his fantasy on Pacini’s Niobe. It is often said that Thalberg suffered a defeat as a result of the comparison, but the facts speak otherwise. Jules Janin wrote a long and judicious account of the affair for the Journal des débats (3 April) which concluded: ‘Two victors and no vanquished; it is fitting to say with the poet “Et ad huc sub judice lis est”’. Afterwards, when invited to express her own opinion, Princess Belgiojoso uttered a diplomatic aphorism which has become enshrined in the literature: ‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world – Liszt is unique’. Liszt, in brief, could not be compared.
The friendship with George Sand led to an invitation to Liszt and Mme d’Agoult to join her at her country château in Nohant. Liszt spent the next three months there in the company of Sand and her friends (including the poet Claude de Mallefille, the actor Pierre Bocage and Sand’s current lover Michel de Bourges). Sand had installed an Erard grand piano in Liszt’s room. It was at Nohant that Liszt began his long series of transcriptions of the Schubert songs, somewhat earlier than is generally supposed, and by July 1837 he had already completed seven of them.
Liszt and Marie d’Agoult resumed their ‘years of pilgrimage’, wending their way from Nohant to Italy; by August they had reached Lake Maggiore. After exploring the eastern shores of Lake Como they lingered at Bellagio, there to await the birth of their second daughter, Cosima. Liszt made frequent trips to nearby Milan where he encountered the music publisher Giovanni Ricordi. In Liszt’s own words he walked into Ricordi’s music shop, sat down at the piano and began to improvise, whereupon Ricordi came rushing out of his office exclaiming: ‘This must be Liszt or the Devil!’ (Gesammelte Schriften, ii, 168). The music publisher lent Liszt his villa in the Branzia and his box at La Scala, and placed at his disposal a library of 1500 scores. One artistic result of the encounter was his piano transcriptions of Rossini’s Les soirées musicales, which Liszt featured in his local recitals to the delight of the Milanese.
In the spring of 1838, while he was in Venice, Liszt read in the newspapers of the flood disaster in Pest. The Danube had overflowed its banks, inundating large areas of Hungarian lowlands, destroying homes and crops, and creating famine. This national crisis proved to be a turning-point in his life. Liszt travelled to Vienna in April 1838 and gave ten recitals for the victims of the floods; six had been planned but four more were given by popular demand. These recitals marked his official return to the concert platform and attracted wide attention. His playing had undergone a radical transformation during his years of travelling, and was received with universal acclaim. Clara Wieck (who later had serious reservations about Liszt’s playing) attended these concerts and wrote: ‘He can be compared to no other player … he arouses fright and astonishment. He is an original … he is absorbed by the piano’ (B. Litzmann: Clara Schumann: ein Künstlerleben, i, Leipzig, 1902, p.199). Carl Czerny was also in attendance and remarked that the playing of his most famous pupil had emerged from the monstrous complexities that had dogged it in earlier years and was now characterized by clarity and wonderful brilliance. Clara Wieck and Czerny became the dedicatees of Liszt’s most demanding pieces to date: the Six Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini were inscribed to Clara and the 12 Grandes études to Czerny. Through his Vienna concerts Liszt raised the sum of 24,000 gulden, the largest donation to be sent to Hungary from a private source.
Liszt joined Marie d’Agoult in Rome to await the birth of their third child, Daniel. The couple then moved to Lucca to escape Rome’s summer heat, and thence to the small fishing village of San Rossore. Inspired by Italian art and literature, Liszt had already begun work on the ‘Italian’ volume of his Années de pèlerinage, and produced the first versions of the three Sonetti del Petrarca, Il penseroso (after Michelangelo’s celebrated statue), Sposalizio (after Raphael’s painting, Lo sposalizio della vergine) and above all the last work of the collection, entitled Après une lecture du Dante and commonly known as the ‘Dante’ Sonata. This period marked the end of his relationship with Mme d’Agoult, fuelled as it was by dashed hopes and fractured feelings, a situation which their joint diary and their personal correspondence makes plain. As Liszt was pondering his future, he heard of the failure of the Beethoven Memorial Committee in Bonn to raise money for a statue to the composer at the place of his birth. Rather than see the scheme collapse, he offered to raise the funds himself, through concerts. The monument that stands in Bonn today (executed by Ernst-Julius Hähnel and unveiled in August 1845, the 75th year of Beethoven’s birth) was made possible largely through Liszt’s personal generosity.